Shambolic, Abysmal, Awful. Wretched, Baffling. The words spewed out as if Terry Butcher had swallowed a thesaurus in seeking to explain the depths to which his side had descended to, ripped apart in a manner which everyone believed had been consigned to history.
Butcher had laid into his players for their performance at Pittodrie eight days earlier, branding it as their worst since he and Maurice Malpas had taken the helm at Easter Road. However, the Hibs boss was left penning a whole new lexicon to describe their ineptitude – one of the few words he didn’t use – as St Mirren threatened to inflict their biggest defeat in the Scottish Premiership this season.
The Buddies had pitched up in Edinburgh having suffered three successive defeats with just six goals on the road to their name and here they were, three up with less than half-an-hour on the clock and looking likely to cause their hosts further embarrassment. They almost did, too, with a Paul McGowan shot on the turn which drifted over goalkeeper Ben Williams only to smack off the face of his crossbar.
A fourth goal, three minutes before the interval, would undoubtedly have cranked up the volume with jeers, unheard of since the days of Pat Fenlon, already ringing around the ground. Quite simply, the fans, like Butcher and Malpas, were hardly able to believe the carnage which was unfolding before their eyes.
As it was, that quick-fire treble from Danny Lennon’s side proved to be enough, but only just.
A double from James Collins, the second of which coming barely 60 seconds from time, gave hope and prompted probably the biggest roar of the afternoon as fourth official Euan Anderson raised the board to indicate there would be at least four minutes of added-on time, that period no doubt extended thanks to some time wasting from the Paisley outfit. Those precious few more minutes should have brought at least the chance of an unlikely equaliser, the ball clearly striking the hands of St Mirren midfielder Adam Campbell – when they were in “an outstretched, unnatural position” – only for referee Willie Collum to, reportedly, rule it accidental.
“I’ve seen it again on video,” revealed Collins, “and it was a penalty. The referee said it was [handball] but it wasn’t deliberate and that’s why he did not give it.
“I don’t know nowadays what that means. To me if it hits your hands, it’s a penalty.”
Butcher was also equally convinced Collum had blundered, saying: “It’s an unbelievable ‘flick up’. You’d get a contract for a volley ball team doings things like that. Willie Collum has got a great view of it as well and he doesn’t give it.”
The Hibs manager, though, had the good grace to admit that as welcome as a point would have been, it would hardly have been merited. Those early goals from St Mirren put the game beyond his side, the first of which came when McGowan’s shot cracked off Williams’ right-hand post, only to smack off the goalkeeper’s shoulder and into the back of the net. Then Campbell left Lewis Stevenson – moved to left back after Ryan McGivern damaged a hamstring – flat-footed as he exchanged a one-two with John McGinn to net a second. The on-loan Newcastle man went on to inflict further damage, tormenting his opponent again to deliver an inviting cross for Steven Thompson to bullet home a close-range header.
Saints’ opener may have been unlucky from Hibs’ point of view, but Butcher, no doubt, would question the time and space offered to McGowan. He would probably raise the same point again as to why McGinn was unmarked and Campbell allowed to run on to his return pass unchecked. The marking wasn’t much better when Thompson claimed his goal, the Buddies having struck twice in two minutes to leave the Capital club floundering.
Throughout those opening 45 minutes, Hibs simply didn’t get close to their opponents whose movement and passing opened Butcher’s side up almost at will. The absence of Paul Hanlon, ending his record of having played every minute of every match this season, had already forced one change at the back. Alan Maybury stepped in at right-back as the usual man in that position, Jordon Forster, partnered Michael Nelson in central defence. Hibs’ cause wasn’t helped when they had to reshuffle again when McGivern limped off.
Butcher, however, was in no mood to use that as any form of excuse. He said: “We cannot just say because we had to rejig the back four we’ve given away three goals in the manner we did. That’s too easy to say and I would not ever go there. We have to do much, much better.
“I just don’t know where that first-half performance came from because that’s not like us at all. Defensively we were a shambles and going forward we were not too much better. We were off the pace, did not stop them from playing. There were lots of things wrong and that was the most wretched 45 minutes I think I have seen from one of my teams. It was absolutely abysmal.
“There were a few choice words at half-time and it was then about getting a bit of pride back, which I think we did. But you cannot give a team three goals of a start, especially in the manner we did – and it could have been more – and hope to get something from the game. We nearly did, but had we got a point we probably wouldn’t have deserved it.”
Just one point from the last three matches has undone some of the good work done over the Christmas period when Hibs took ten points out of a possible 12 and while the January transfer window usually only allows a manager to apply a bit of sticking plaster, Butcher promised radical surgery come the end of the season.
Butcher named just six substitutes, the manager offering up the reasons as injury and his assertion he felt others did not deserve a place on the bench. Those words will undoubtedly cast a further question over the future of the likes of Kevin Thomson, Tom Taiwo, Tim Clancy and Rowan Vine, all of whom have failed to feature in recent weeks. Moreover, Butcher, who cancelled the players day off today and ordered them in for extra training, insisted: “There were a few players in the first half who said to me by their performance ‘I am not good enough gaffer, get someone else in’. That’s what they said to me. I cannot do that in January, but I will bloody well do it in the summer. That was unacceptable. That was awful.”